Comedian/Genius Greg Proops on why comedy has become cruel

proops_tj4ogyComedian Greg Proops is not a fan of superhero movies, sequels or remakes—with one or two notable exceptions.

The Maltese Falcon, by John Huston, is a remake,” he points out. “There have always been sequels and there will always be remakes, but all of these superhero movies just don’t do it for me. I know people love them, and they are mildly entertaining, but my problem with superheroes is that they all have these amazing powers, all of these fantastic things they can do that defy nature—and then at the end they just have a big fistfight. Anybody can have a fistfight. Big deal.”

Unknown-2Proops, best known for his stint on TV’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” is the author of The Smartest Book in the World, a reference book adaptation of his popular podcast “The Smartest Man in the World.” Essentially a witty download of Proopian thoughts on history, culture and the state of the world, the podcast—and the highly entertaining book it inspired—is a companion to his other podcast, “Greg Proops Film Club,” a live recording of conversations that Proops has on stage in Los Angeles after screening one of his favorite movies at the Cinefamily theater.

Recently in Northern California on a book tour, Proops enthusiastically accepted my invitation to see and discuss a movie … but then we couldn’t find a film that we both wanted to see happening at a time we were both available to see it.

Then he left the state.

Today, having given up on choosing one particular film to discuss, the Smartest Man in the World and I are on the phone, talking about why it’s so hard to find a good film that isn’t in 3D (“The wax museum [movie], sure, but nothing else,” Proops says), isn’t a remake or sequel or doesn’t feature a superhuman mutant beating the crap out of other superhuman mutants.

MV5BMTQ5NDg1NzU1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDQyODgxMTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_“The last movie I saw in a movie theater was Pillow Talk, with Rock Hudson and Doris Day,” Proops says.

No, Proops is not saying that he hasn’t been to a movie since 1959, when Pillow Talkdebuted. He screened it as part of his Greg Proops Film Club.

“It’s great to see an old movie on the big screen,” he says. “It’s kind of funny how, even if you’ve seen a film a thousand times on TV, then see them with a bunch of people in a theater, those movies seem new and exciting. Pillow Talk got actual screams of laughter from some people in the audience. People were crying, they were laughing so hard.

“Do you know that movie, David?”

“I’ve seen it on TV,” I admit. “It’s one of those weirdly dated movies that still manages to be funny, partly because it’s so dated.”

“Exactly!” Proops says. “Rock Hudson absolutely tortures Doris Day, who’s his neighbor, with a party line on their phone. Rock Hudson keeps calling her up and pretending to be different people on the party line. It was getting howls, and I was thinking it really wouldn’t hurt to go back and look at some of those great sitcom-style movies from the ’50s and ’60s. They make movies like Bridesmaids and The Hangover III look so unsophisticated and dumb.”

“And yet, in a way, they were the Bridesmaids and Hangovers of their day,” I point out. “These were the movies parents didn’t want their kids to see because they might be a bad influence.”

“It’s true. They had sex in them, or the possibility of sex,” Proops says. “When we showed Pillow Talk in Los Angeles on a Tuesday night, the place was packed with 170 people, and not just old people in their 80s. The people who come are not dusty archivists, pining for the past. They are film fans, and a lot of them were young—and they loved it, because it works. It’s a good movie.”

“And it’s not mean,” I add. “Comedies today have gotten incredibly mean. The remake of Vacation, for one example, heaps so much genuine pain and agony on its characters I don’t see why people can laugh at it for 90 minutes.”

“Oh, I agree,” Proops says. “Cruelty has replaced humor, and I’m not sure when it happened. There’s where I get off the train. I mean, I’ve always liked slapstick, and as a comedian, I try to use as much slapstick in my act as humanly possible, because I think it’s a valuable art form. I mean, it’s a rule of comedy that someone else’s pain is always funny. But there’s only so much we can take.

“I saw it happening on television in a huge way, starting four or five years ago,” he continues. “Every single TV commercial had someone being killed, or getting their hand caught in a machine. When did we become the world of hurt? Is there no room left for anything but cruelty?”

griswoldsvacation_main“Can it possibly go any further?” I ask. “Or will there be a return, at some point, to a kind, gentler form of humor?”

“I hope there will be but I really don’t know,” Proops says. “There’s a definite desensitization at work, and it makes me sad. People are nicer than that, I think. I don’t know, maybe I’m naïve. Of course I’m naïve. I choose to be naïve. I think it’s better than being hard and cruel.”

“Would you say that, maybe, gentler forms of humor cease to be effective after years of repetition,” I ask, trying to put my finger on the trend, “so that, to get a laugh, we need to turn up the intensity, and as a result, movies get more and more intense, and humor becomes more and more mean-spirited?”

“No, I wouldn’t say that, exactly,” he responds. “I’d say that Hollywood studios are reinforcing the economy of bullshit that these lousy writers are coming up with. It’s the kind of stuff studios will buy from writers, because they know it sells, so that’s all writers are writing, because they need to work. It’s basically a problem of studios distrusting the intelligence of their audience, and if you don’t give the audience anything else to choose, they will choose the crap.

“And then Hollywood makes more crap, ’cause they think that’s what people want. But guess what? I do a podcast where I talk and blather about whatever is on my mind for 90 minutes, like an old-fashioned radio show . . . and people listen. Lots of people listen. I show old movies in movie theaters once a month, and people come to them, and they enjoy them, and don’t flip out or anything. It excites them, and it’s contagious.

“Because it’s different,” concludes Proops. “And we can only handle so many superhero movies before we demand something else. And I don’t think that’s just me.

“Though maybe it is. I am naïve, after all.”

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ARCHIVE PICK: Curator Mickey McGowan on the star-studded ‘Playing by Heart’ (1999)

Playing_by_heartJuggling an enormous cinnamon roll and a cup of hot coffee, I make my way to the table where Mickey McGowan has already set up camp, pouring his own cup of herbal tea from the weather-beaten thermos he carries everywhere he goes. Sitting down, I stir my coffee. He sips his tea. I push the little red button on my tape recorder.

“I was delighted, ” I quickly confess. “Almost shocked. Weren’t you?”

“Oh, sure! It was wonderful,” enthuses McGowan. “It gave me a warm thrill of nostalgia. It reminded me of going to the movies in the 1950s, when it was still a magical experience.”

He sips his tea. I tear off a piece of my roll.

Thus begins our ritual. We’ve been observing this same series of cozy elements–the café, the coffee, the tea, the conversation–since first we met six years ago, at the very same neon-and-chrome movie megaplex at which we rendezvoused today. What’s different this time, is that the film McGowan and I have just seen (the star-studded, relatively enjoyable Playing By Heart) is not what has inspired this spirited verbal exchange.


Instead, we are captivated by what took place just seconds before the film began, when the wide-open screen–featuring one slide-show advertisement after another–suddenly went dark and–as we sat watching in surprise–the curtains slid elegantly shut. After a short pause, the lights in the theater faded, the curtains ceremoniously opened again, and the coming attractions began.

Unknown-1“It was beautiful,” McGowan recalls. “Seeing a curtain open. It was nice to be reminded that once upon a time every movie began with that curtain rising up before us. It heightened our sense of anticipation. The curtain’s rising was always a very special moment.”

images-2
Playing by Heart featured captivating performances by a young Angelina Jolie and a blue-haired Ryan Philippe.

McGowan, an accomplished display artist, is the cultural commentator and curator of Marin County’s legendary Unknown Museum. An ever-evolving archive of pop-culture artifacts from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the museum earned itself an international cult-following before losing its home a decade ago. All the artifacts are now in storage, awaiting rebirth in a new location.

“Obviously, some theaters still use curtains,” I remark. “But most theaters use those pre-show advertisements interspersed with dumb trivia questions.”

McGowan nods, “The experience of going to the movies is completely different now. Remember being shown to your seat by an usher in a uniform? With a flashlight? You were treated like royalty. It was always grand and magical. Remember making projectiles out of folded popcorn boxes? You never wanted to sit down front because you’d always be whacked by something.

“That’s how it was at the Paradise and the Loyola in Westchester, Calif., where I grew up,” he recalls. “The Loyola was a gorgeous art-deco classic. It was wonderful–single screen, balcony, lush, gorgeous. I saw Psychothere. Love Me TenderIt Came From Outer Space.

7b3v64E-1
One of the surprises of ‘Playing by Heart’ is the adorable but bumpy romance between Gillian Anderson and Jon Stewart (yep, that Jon Stewart!), who plays an architect who fall sin love with the too-hurt-to-love-again Anderson.

“I visited my home town last week,” he continues. “I was doing the ‘roots’ thing, going back to see the house I grew up in, the school I went to, all of that. It’s the first time I’d been back in years. I went to find the Loyola. It’s been converted to professional offices. And the Paradise Theater is gone. Completely.

“At a moment like that, you feel three things at once,” he explains. “You get this rush of experience and nostalgia, mixed with a sense of dismay and an awareness of change, combined with a feeling of acceptance and a Zen attitude of ‘Life goes on.’

“Nothing lasts forever, you know,” he adds with a resigned chuckle.

As I slowly work towards the matrix of my cinnamon roll, McGowan–after a short tangent on the subject of drive-in movies–pours himself another cup of tea.

Unknown“On the other hand,” he murmurs, in a voice that suggests he’s about to offer an alternative viewpoint to his own, “perhaps the experience of going to the movies hasn’t changed as much as we’re saying. The basic experience is pretty much the same, isn’t it? You eventually get to a seat, you’re in a darkened room with a group of other people. It’s like going to church, but the worshippers all buy snacks in the lobby. The screen is still our altar.

“The movies are still sacred.

“In some ways, one could argue that going to the movies is even better today,” he adds, verging on a total about-face from his initial stance.

“How could anyone argue that?” I politely demand.

“Well, the screens are better today,” he points out. “The projectors are better, the sound systems–THX and Dolby and all the rest–are better. The seats are more comfortable than ever. Once the lights go down, the experience is possiblypossibly better than it was.

“And I suppose I’m glad they don’t throw flattened popcorn boxes anymore. There’d be lawsuits. Those popcorn boxes were lethal.”

The ritual is nearing an end.

The roll has been consumed. Our cups and thermoses are empty.

“Bottom line, though” McGowan thoughtfully concludes. “I think it was always the movies that made the magic, not the theaters. Even as a kid, once the lights went down, the movie itself was the final test, wasn’t it?”

“Well, I still miss the theaters,” I half-heartedly grumble.

“Oh, so do I,” McGowan nods. “But if you think about it, you’ll recall that it was the movies themselves that first made a believer out of you. The theaters were just the icing on the cake. I guarantee it.”

[Originally published in the North Bay Bohemian, 1999)

ARCHIVE PICK: Author Mark Vaz on ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (1996)

star trekWE HAVE ARRIVED early at the mall and are standing around in front of the massive 15-screen theater where is playing on four separate screens. Informed that the box office will not open for another 10 minutes, we wander about the mall as custodians install giant Christmas decorations.

Pointing toward “Santa’s Magical Village,” I inform my guest, Mark Vaz, author of the splendid new book Industrial Light and Magic: Into the Digital Realm (Ballantine; $80), that at this particular mall the Jolly Old Elf does not give candy canes to the wide-eyed children sitting on his lap. He hands them a sample bag of breakfast cereals and a book of coupons.

“That’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard,” Vaz responds. “I guess you’re never too young to be indoctrinated into the consumer culture, but that’s so aggressive it’s almost repugnant.”

Vaz has devoted the majority of his writerly efforts to the subject of popular culture and film, and to cinematic special effects specifically. He has contributed numerous pieces to the high-tech journal Cinefex and authored books on the history of Batman and on the phenomenon of trance channeling, and an earlier book on the films of George Lucas. In his latest work, co-authored with Patricia Duignan, Vaz has assembled an all-encompassing history of the North Bay­based ILM, nicely illuminating the creative wizardry of the world’s predominant special-effects company. Included, incidentally, are details on the effects from the previous Star Trek films.

MArk Cotta VazFirst Contact, the first Trek film to feature none of the original cast, presents instead the members of the popular Next Generation TV series. It’s a rousing adventure, with the crew battling the Borg, a frightening swarm of zombielike, cybernetic techno-punks that assimilate everything in their path and have set their sights on Earth. A subplot involves our planet’s “first contact” with aliens, an event that, in Star Trek lore, becomes the catalyst for humanity’s evolution toward peace and prosperity.

“The Borg,” Vaz laughs, sipping a pint of ale after the film. “I got the impression that they’re sort of a comment on our modern mass culture. Maybe the Borg are representative of what we feel is this impersonal culture that surrounds us–the government or the force of overpopulation. We tend to feel depersonalized by our culture, don’t we?”

Individuality versus the needs of the collective whole. This is a recurring theme in the Star Trek ideology. In this latest film, humans existing on the planet just before the extraterrestrials land are individual to a fault.

“I felt sorry for the aliens at the end,” Vaz commiserates. “Being subjected to our lousy whiskey and loud rock and roll.” When I counter that the visitors seemed willing enough to slam back a second shot of booze, Vaz bursts out laughing. “And there’s something odd about that,” he says. “We can say, ‘Oh, these aliens are just like us. They can relate. But why can’t we relate to them? Why can’t we sit and be quiet like they were doing?

Borg“But this movie was made by humans, trained in a human viewpoint. Our culture is very loud and brash and profane. It doesn’t embrace subtlety, at least it hasn’t recently. The nature of mass media is to get out there and to catch your attention, to be loud and boisterous. To act like everyone else.

“On the whole, with marketing and commercial tie-ins and cereal samples from Santa Claus and everything, we’ve already become the Borg! ‘Oh, I’m sorry–I can’t wear those jeans. It would be uncool,'” he mocks.

He takes another sip.

“Maybe the Borg are behind all this,” Vaz laughs. “Maybe if you get Donald Trump and all these people and you pull their face off, it will reveal a bunch of Borgs.

“Back to the issue of aliens making contact, I doubt we’d share our whiskey. I think you’d see abysmal behavior on the part of the human race.

Alice-Krige-Borg-Queen-Star-Trek-8-First-Contact-4“Even me,” he grimaces. “Just the other day in my house I killed a tarantula. Somehow it got into my house, and it was so creepy I had to kill it. And I’m the kind of guy who lets spiders have their little nests in my place. But all of a sudden this tarantula crawled by–so I dropped a stack of books on it.

“That’s the classic invasion scenario, isn’t it?” he asks. “The aliens come–they look terrifying–so we blast ’em!” He smiles, adding, “And the noble humans live long and prosper.”

[Originally published in 1996 in the North Bay Bohemian]

‘Paper Towns’ and what YA movies have to say about Love

o-PAPER-TOWNS-facebook“Best! Teen! Road movie! Ever!”

Whispered just loud enough to be heard over the end-credit music now blaring merrily from the vicinity of the movie theater screen, my 20-something son Andy succinctly puts his indelible stamp of approval on Paper Towns, the latest film adaptation of a book by Young Adult (YA) novelist John Green. The movie, an enjoyably offbeat love story, of sorts, involves a nerdy high school senior named Quentin (Nat Wolff), who hits the road with a robust van-full of friends, to follow clues possibly left behind by the hero’s mysterious love object, Margo (Cara Delevingne), who might not actually have intended Quentin to pursue her when she suddenly dropped out of school and skipped town.

The film was good. Very good, actually.

Personally, I have observed that YA novels are yielding some of the best and freshest literature of the current age. Furthermore, the movies made from these books (everything from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to last year’s The Fault in Our Stars, also by John Green) are often, but not always, filled with impressively accurate depictions of teenagers, be they young cancer survivors in love, hormonal combatants in a futuristic gladiator spectacle, or a poor geeky guy in love with a girl who may or may not be the love of his life but who has awesome eyebrows.

Andy agrees.

Not about the eyebrows, a subject on which he expressed no opinion. But he doesagree that YA novels often make the best movies. Actually, Andy’s views do not figure into this column beyond his original statement, which handed me a great opening line with which to launch a series of my own personal thoughts on the allure of “teen road movies,” which, come to think of it, there actually aren’t very many.

Beyond Paper Towns, I can think of only two others—The Sure Thing, a 1985 comedy starring John Cusack, and the 1979 Diane Lane debut A Little Romance. Like Paper TownsThe Sure Thing follows a teenager driving cross-country in a quest for a girl, though in the Cusack film, he just wants to get laid. In Paper Towns, the quest is all about true love, and the lengths to which our hero goes to find it, with the help of some charmingly faithful friends who are eager to help their lovesick buddy win the heart of the mysterious runaway with a penchant for leaving cryptic clues.

littleromanceIn A Little Romance, two 13-year-olds in Paris—one American, the other French—travel by car, train and gondola in order to kiss beneath the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, believing local legends saying that any two people who kiss under the bridge at sunset will love each other forever.

I haven’t thought of that movie in years, but I remember the first time I saw it because I saw it with a girl named Pinky.

More on her later.

In these films, the protagonist is often inspired by fictional stories of romance and adventure, inspired to their quest for love because … well, that’s what fictional guys do.  Since seeing Paper Towns with Andy—a somewhat hilarious father-son bonding experience, given that the theater was otherwise packed with females, most of them teens, and only one other male, who appeared to be a on first date—I have been thinking about the films that inspired my own beliefs about love and life, back when I was a senior in high school.

images-1One such film was American Graffiti—which might qualify as a road movie, given that so much of it takes place in cars—a movie about the early ’60s that was released in the early ’70s, but managed to capture the strange blend of innocence and cynicism that teens often feel when hovering on the precipice of adulthood.

Like the heroes of the aforementioned films, Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt is on a quest to find a particular girl, the elusive Blonde in the White T-Bird. After spying her driving down the street one long night, frustrated with the choices his life seems to be offering him, Curt falls instantly in love, convinced that the girl in the T-Bird holds the answers he’s found nowhere else.

I see a pattern here.

SPOILER ALERT! In all of the films mentioned above, the nerdy guy never actually ends up with the girl. Or not for long, anyway. In most of those films, the most the hero gets is one kiss; then it’s goodbye, sorry, you’re not my type—but in a good way. And in American Graffiti, Curt never manages to do more than talk to the Blonde in the White T-Bird for two minutes on a pay phone.american_graffiti_suzanne_somers

I identified with Curt, having become similarly smitten with the aforementioned Pinky. She drove a Toyota, not a T-Bird. We lived in a Los Angeles suburb, not Modesto. My clumsy but highly creative pursuit of her was assisted, just like in Paper Towns, by a band of friends with nothing else to do. In high YA fashion, they helped me send Pinky on a Lord of the Rings-style treasure hunt that concluded with me rescuing her, knight-in-shining-armor-style, from a band of sword-fighting orcs and Ringwraiths.

Talk about being inspired by fiction.

That story, for what it’s worth, was the basis of my 2012 play Pinky, which I have recently learned is set to be staged in Marin County in the fall of 2016.

But where was I? Oh, right. Fiction. The thing is, as a one-time teen myself, I can see that my ideas of the world were partially derived from whatever I saw in front of me—and I saw a whole lot of movies. In half of them, true love always wins out. In the others, love crashes and burns in a flaming ball of teenage angst and bad timing.

Like in Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet.

2672860128_fa3f21269bI saw that one at a drive-in movie when I was 8.

From Romeo and Juliet I learned that Olivia Hussey was the most beautiful girl in the world, and that love, even when it crashes and burns, is more or less worth the trouble—because it’s love.

Which, more-or-less, is what Quentin and his friends finally learn in Paper Towns, even if the happy ending they eventually arrive at requires a somewhat different definition of “happy” than the one they all learned at the movies.

Young Cinema fan Starts Conversation about Faith and Film

Films: "Contact" (1997) Starring Jodie Foster

“The problem with faith-based films is they kind of don’t play fair.”

This remark comes not from a film critic, or social activist, or anti-religious pundit, but from a teenage girl with blonde hair, engaged in a conversation about film at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.

Last week, I was talking to a bunch of kids as part of the California Film Institute’s (CFI) annual Summerfilm youth program, a presentation of CFI’s ongoing educational efforts.

Each year, I talk to the students—usually between 15 and 30 teens recruited from around Marin County—sharing inside information about being a film writer, and the history of criticism as an art form.

Eventually the kids always ask me to list my favorite or least favorite films, or to explain why I might take issue with some particular genre of film. Last Thursday morning, in answer to that last question, I admitted that I find slasher films—particularly of the Saw and Hostel variety—along with faith-based films like God’s Not Dead and Christian Mingle, are not to my taste, primarily because they are so focused on a narrow audience desperate to see images and messages that move them, that they often settle for a kind of artless mediocrity.

0I did list a title or two in each genre that I believed were exceptions to that rule, and as I was finishing, the aforementioned young woman, sitting in the second row, raised her hand to tell me her opinion of God’s Not Dead, a 2013 film in which an atheist college professor (played by outspoken Christian actor Kevin Sorbo, of Hercules fame) challenges his students to prove that God is not, as he insists, dead.

“My problem with the movie,” she says, “is that it cheats. It’s not fair, because it makes all the believers seem wonderful, and the non-believers seem like really bad, awful people. That’s not the way it is in the world. So it makes its case, but it makes it based on a lie.”

Somebody hire this girl, because she’s a film critic waiting to happen.

After the workshop, I got to thinking about this exchange, and started asking myself a few questions. She’s right, that many faith-based films use broadly sketched stereotypes to represent non-believers, but of course, mainstream movies have been turning believers into comic foils and stereotypical villains for as long as there have been movies.

Eventually, I remembered one movie that worked miracles in turning all of these stereotypes back on each other: Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 science fiction brainteaser Contact.

When the film—starring Jodie Foster in one of her best performances—first came out, I took Dr. Eugenie Scott to see it, and now, with these thoughts fresh in my mind, I went and pulled out the recording I made of our conversation.

Scott is a physical anthropologist with a resumé full of distinguished teaching appointments, and at that time was the executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a nonprofit watchdog group headquartered in the East Bay. Since 1981, the NCSE has monitored creation/evolution skirmishes in public schools. Scott, who now serves the NCSE on an advisory level, was a 1991 recipient of the Public Education in Science Award, given out by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

She is, by all definitions of the word, a non-believer.

And that label is part of what made me want to revisit the conversation.

“You know what I think?” Scott asked, early in the discussion. “I think we non-believers need to find a term other than ‘spiritual’ to describe many of our profound experiences. I wish we could find a word that means awe and wonder and excitement and love, without the supernatural twist that ‘spiritual’ has.”

We spent a bit of time dissecting Contact, a remarkably powerful drama based on the 1984 novel by the late scientist Carl Sagan. The film concerns a worldwide clash of values and ideas, mainly between science and religion, that occurs after radio signals from space are detected and identified as an invitation from an alien race. Foster plays the scientist who discovers the message, a practical woman and dedicated seeker of answers, whose intense empiricism becomes an issue when she volunteers to be the first emissary to the solar system from which the signals originated.

In one key scene, Foster is asked by an international selection committee if she is a ‘spiritual person,’ by which they mean, does she believe in God? She doesn’t, and, squirming uncomfortably, it is clear that she doesn’t like the ambiguity of the word spiritual.

“It must have been terribly awkward,” Dr. Scott continued in her analysis of the scene. “I can certainly identify with her. How do I talk about something that is non-material yet is also non-supernatural? How do I talk about the awe that descends on me when I go to the top of a mountain? Or when I hear the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute, and the hair goes up on the back of my neck?

“I don’t think those feelings are supernatural, but they’re not exactly material either. So I wish I could come up with a term—one that wasn’t clunky—to express that. ‘Non-material non-supernaturalist’ doesn’t exactly fall trippingly from the tongue, now does it?”

In movies like Contact and God’s Not Dead, whenever a character identifies himself or herself as an atheist or a believer in God, you can see the hackles rising on the characters who hold a different view.

Scott, for what it’s worth, suggested during the conversation that she prefers “agnostic” to “atheist,” as she is first and foremost a scientist.

“I would agree with good old Thomas Henry Huxley,” she continued, “who said, ‘The only reasonable attitude for a scientist to take would be agnosticism, because you really cannot know if God exists, so you shouldn’t be an atheist.’

“For a scientist, ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer,” she added. “You don’t accept the first explanation that comes along. Somebody shows up and says, ‘Aunt Rosie can find water with a forked stick. She’s found it five times in the last 10 years.’

“OK. Is there another explanation? To me the best thing we can do in our society—in terms of teaching people to think—is to get children trained immediately to say, ‘Is there a better explanation?’ And of these explanations, which is the better supported when I go to nature and look for the support?”

I recalled another remark Scott made, but had to skip to the end of the tape to find it. But I did, and my thanks to the young woman in the second row whose remarks sent me in search of it.

“I saw a bumper sticker the other day,” Scott said. “It read, ‘Thank God for Evolution.’ I can appreciate that. I wish we had more people with that kind of sense of humor. It would make my job a whole lot easier.”

Therapist Myra Bernecker analyzes the preteen mindset of ‘Inside Out’

TalkingPics1_WEB-700x454

Some movies, and certain post-film conversations, aren’t easily forgotten. Twenty-four hours after my talk with Dr. Myra Gueco Bernecker—whose private therapy practice in San Francisco aims to build up healthy emotional lives in children and adults—the movie we discussed is still very much on her mind.

“Dear David! I had a few more thoughts,” Bernecker writes in an email the day after our cinematic question-and-answer session. Among her additional thoughts is the change of one answer from ‘Yes,’ to ‘Maybe.’

That’s awesome. After all, the whole point of the movie—Pixar’s psychologically savvy mega-hit Inside Out—is that change, though often unexpected and fraught with danger, is good.

A highly imaginative look at the inner world of a preteen girl named Riley, the movie follows the 11-year-old as her calm and happy emotional state is thrown into major upheaval when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. In the beautifully animated film—written and directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen—Riley’s emotions are represented as colorful little oddly-shaped people: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. Each emotion gets to take a turn at the console, a kind of one-feeling-at-a-time switchboard in Riley’s head—aka “Headquarters”—though Joy (voice of Amy Poehler) is accustomed to making most of the big decisions. That’s a system that’s about to change big-time when Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith) suddenly can’t resist putting her melancholy touch on everything, shifting Riley’s experience of the world from sunny to serious.

Early in my conversation with Bernecker, at a coffee-and-pastry emporium near her office, I ask if she thought that Riley’s preadolescent angst would have happened even if the family had stayed back in Minnesota.

“Oh, I think so, yes,” Bernecker says, sipping a cup of tea. “It’s pretty normal. Between six and 11 is called the ‘latency age,’ where inner conflicts are pushed way down below the surface, and people on the outside don’t see them very much.

“But then, along come the preteens,” she continues, “and suddenly all of those things that have been successfully pushed down below the surface, whoosh! They suddenly come to the surface. So I think Riley’s emotional ups and downs would probably have happened, even if she’d stayed in Minnesota.”

“Some critics,” I mention, “have called foul at the movie’s rather simplistic suggestion that before adolescence, the normal emotional state of all kids is joy and happiness. I guess there is the concern that kids who are feeling anything other than happy all the time might see this, and worry that there is something wrong with them. But some kids have good reason to feel sadness, or anger, or fear, don’t they?”

Unknown-2“Yes, I agree, that was a bit simplistic,” Bernecker says with a nod, “but between six and 11—if there is a happy home, stable parents and nothing too stressful in the kids’ lives—things usually are pretty good. Joy, in that kind of environment, probably wouldbe the primary state of things. We get the idea that the move to San Francisco is the single biggest change she’s ever experienced.

“Another kid, with a different situation at home,” she adds, “might have a different system going on in their head.”

When asked what she thought of the metaphor of little people fighting for control of the buttons in our brains as a description of emotional processes, Bernecker smiles.

“I liked it,” she says. “I think it’s an accurate way of displaying the struggle and inner turmoil that happens, and the unrest people may experience, when facing something significantly stressful. Riley’s emotions are out of control, because nothing is normal, so the feelings that were once so balanced, working so nicely together, suddenly don’t know how to work together anymore. To me, it’s a perfect way of showing what happens during adolescence.”

Eventually, in the film, we see that the feelings in Riley’s head have replaced the console with another, bigger console, where there is room for all of them to work side by side, presumably allowing Riley to feel more than one emotion at a time.

“I think it might give a sense of relief to children,” Bernecker remarks, “to know that you can, and probably should, feel more than one emotion at a time. That’s a healthy thing to encourage.”

In Inside Out, Riley can’t shake the thought that life would be better if Mom and Dad had never hauled her to California, where people eat pizza with broccoli on it. After our conversation, Bernecker, likewise, can’t shake the thought that she might have added some necessary context to one of the points she made.

“When you asked if I thought that Riley would still go through what she did,” she writes in her email, “even if she didn’t make the move, I said, ‘Yes.’ But I’ve thought more about that, and I retract my ‘yes,’ and now answer your question with, ‘It depends.’

“Given Riley’s stable upbringing and secure attachment to her parents,” she continues, “it’s possible that she may not have experienced preadolescence with such intensity, and a brand new, bigger ‘console’ at Headquarters would likely not be necessary, yet. Without the move, her imbalancing and restructuring process could take place later in her teen years or even young adult years. The inner turmoil—mood swings, et cetera—is a sign that the restructuring process is underway.

“I think this movie is applicable to all ages,” Bernecker writes, “in that restructuring can happen at any age. When a big psychosocial stressor occurs—i.e., a move, breakup, divorce, death, lost job, et cetera—depending on one’s inner and outer resources and other factors, it can be devastating. That loss can stir up past losses, if unresolved, and can or will require a new, bigger console at Headquarters.”

Just as there’s always room for more than one emotion at the controls, there’s always room for one more thought from the doctor. Before our conversation concluded, Bernecker left me with this final thought.

“There is an inner life that happens in children,” she says, “in all of us actually, that not everyone sees or pays attention to. In the movie, I thought Riley was showing hints of sadness from the beginning, right below the surface. But she was hiding it. And that’s the point of the movie, and why it’s so good.

“Just because we see one thing on the outside,” she concludes, “doesn’t mean that’s all that’s happening on the inside.”

Will Durst finds hope in ‘Tomorrowland’

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“Well I don’t care what the critics say—I think it’s a great message!”

So confesses Will Durst, exiting the San Rafael movie theater where we’ve just watched the upbeat, epic action movie Tomorrowland, Disney’s optimistic answer to the end-of-the-world gloom and doom of Mad MaxSan Andreas and Age of Ultron.

Wait a minute.

Age of Ultron was a Disney movie, wasn’t it?

Never mind.

“You know what? I liked Tomorrowland a lot!” continues Durst, the San Francisco-based comic, author and political satirist known for finding a silver lining of humor in even the worst of situations. “I like the whole ‘hope’ thing in the movie. Stop with the doom and gloom already. I think the movie is totally right. I think all of these apocalyptic-nightmare-dystopia movies are a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s nice to have something that challenges that a little.”

Tomorrowland, directed by Brad Bird (The Iron GiantThe Incredibles) is nothing if not a challenge to the norm—not that it doesn’t offer a bit of sobering future shock on its way to suggesting a possible redemption. The movie is inspired, in part, by the utopian dreams of Walt Disney, who concocted the original Tomorrowland attractions at Disneyland and went on to dream up the futuristic Epcot Center at Disney World. It follows a brilliant teenager named Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), who hears warnings of global warming and nuclear proliferation and asks, “What are we doing to fix it?” When she finds a mysterious pin showing her a glimpse of a big, bright, beautiful city full of rocket packs and hovering busses, she heads out in search of the reclusive inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney), who might know how to take her there.

Unfortunately, she eventually learns, the world is going to end in 58 days, and nobody cares enough to change it. Critics have called the movie “half-baked” and “simplistic,” even accusing it of having lapses in logic. But criticizing a film like Tomorrowland for a few logical failures is a bit like finding plot problems in Aesop’s Fables.

“This fable has plot problems!” Durst says, taking on the haughty tone of some anti-Aesop pundit. “If frogs could talk, would the frogs not be more interested in locating a sustainable food source than engaging in existential discussions on the nature of humankind?’ These frogs have clear logic issues!”

Despite its Aesop-like nature, Tomorrowland does carry plenty of action, with killer robots, spaceships, flying contraptions, laser beams, explosions, implosions, inter-dimensional travel and an awesome battle in a store full of Star Wars kitsch and Lost in Space collectibles.

“The thing is,” Durst says, once we’ve settled down with our biodegradable coffee cups filled with fair trade beverages, “the world really might be coming to an end if we don’t do something about it. And we really do love movies about the apocalypse. In Tomorrowland, the one guy says that when we were given a vision of the future we were heading for, we turned it into movies and video games. And he’s right. Even Stephen Hawking says that if we create real Artificial Intelligence (AI) it could be very bad, but instead of abandoning it, the corporations plow ahead with AI and the rest of us watch movies in which the robots take over the world.”

Unknown-1That—in a nutshell—is exactly what Tomorrowland is saying. Durst has been thinking a lot about the end of the world lately. Having struck a chord with his hit one-man-show about the past, Boomeraging: From LSD to OMG—which plays this Friday and Saturday at 8pm at San Rafael’s Belrose Theater—he’s about to launch a brand new solo show titled, Durst Case Scenario, in which he looks at the future.

“The new show is definitely going to touch on the end of the world,” Durst says. “You know there are those Worst Case Scenario books, giving contingency plans on how to escape from grizzly bears or how to escape from quicksand. Well in my new show I’ll explain what to do if you find Vladimir Putin in your hotel room shirtless. So it’s about terrible things, but it’s funny. It’s like if the zombie apocalypse happened, but all the zombies were wearing clown noses.”

Actually, that would be terrifying.

“I’m just glad there were no zombies in Tomorrowland, Durst goes on. “I’m so tired of zombies. And who invented fast zombies? When did that happen? Zombies aren’t supposed to sprint, like in a lot of the new zombie movies. Zombies are supposed to trudge and stumble. I want dim, stupid, meandering zombies. Oh wait! That’s the Tea Party!”

One of the points of the movie is that the end-of-the-world scenarios we play out in our entertainment aren’t just society’s way of examining the things we are afraid of. These movies are our way of preparing for a future we’ve consciously chosen to embrace.

“Sure, ’cause if the end of the world comes, then we’re off the hook,” Durst says with a laugh. “The apocalypse is coming this afternoon? Great! I guess I don’t have to go to work tomorrow. And I can stop recycling while I’m at it! Seriously though, nobody wants a drought in California, right? But is anyone willing to actually change their lives to keep it from coming? Of course not!

“In the movie, the guy says, ‘You have concurrent epidemics of starvation and obesity. How does that happen?’ He’s right. We could fix a lot of our problems right now, but that would hurt the corporations’ bottom line, so we just shrug and move on. Even when we fix one problem, we create another. We’re figuring out how to make machines to turn seawater into drinkable water, which is great, right? So what’s going to happen when we perfect these systems? We are going to suck the oceans dry! Because that’s how we roll.”

The best thing about Tomorrowland, though, is its suggestion that if enough people were inspired by a positive vision of the future, the dreamers and thinkers and artists might band together to find a way to solve our problems in a sustainable, mutually beneficial way.

“I actually think it can happen,” Durst says. “I do. I think we can get out of our own way, and make it hip to be positive, and we can find the people who can save the world. I believe there can be a positive, optimistic tomorrow.

“I just hope,” he adds with a laugh, “the world lasts long enough for tomorrow to happen.”